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A Beginner's Guide to Imaging the Moon
A Beginner's Guide to Imaging the Moon

Orion is proud to partner with BBC Sky at Night Magazine, the UK's biggest selling astronomy periodical, to bring you this article as part of an ongoing series to provide valuable content to our customers. Check back each month for exciting articles from renowned amateur astronomers, practical observing tutorials, and much more!

Whether you have a phone camera or a pro camera, we show you how to take your first lunar astrophoto.

Crater Copernicus by Bob S.

Crater Copernicus by Bob S.

The silvery Moon riding high in the sky on a crisp winter's night is a perennially alluring sight, and for the photographers among us its smooth seas, mountains and crater-flecked plains present a similarly inescapable attraction. For those just starting out in astrophotography, the Moon's brightness and large apparent diameter make it a superb target to cut your astro imaging teeth on. Indeed, nowadays you need little more than a smartphone camera and small telescope to snap detailed images of our satellite's spectacular, rugged surface.

Here, we're going to explore some of the basics of lunar imaging, from the techniques that can produce great results to the features and phenomena that make ideal subjects for beginner shots. We'll also use key astro imaging skills — such as composition and tracking a target — in two step-by-step projects.

Afocal Imaging

Capturing the view through your telescope with a smartphone.

If you own a small scope then you may have already tried one of the simplest methods for grabbing a picture of the Moon: afocal imaging. This is a fancy name for something that's really very simple - holding your camera up to the eyepiece of the telescope and snapping the view.

Traditionally, point-and-shoot cameras and the like have been used for afocal imaging with great success, but now - in the age of the camera-equipped smartphone - wonderfully detailed, sharp images can be captured with just the mobile in your pocket. One of the main challenges of afocal imaging is keeping the camera aligned with the eyepiece so that the Moon stays in view. Special adaptors are available to buy that will hold a smartphone or digital camera in place to make this easier, but if you're going the handheld route then we recommend using a low power eyepiece at first.

Basics of High Frame Rate Imaging

Learn how to cut through the wobbles of our atmosphere to create sharp lunar images.

Hold a digital camera or smartphone up to the eyepiece of a telescope and snap the Moon's disc afocally and you're likely to notice that from shot to shot the sharpness in the image varies. In one area of an image you might capture a crisp view of a crater field, whereas elsewhere in the shot the image is slightly blurry. In the next shot another area may be sharper or the whole disc may be noticeably soft.

This variation in detail from moment to moment is all down to the turbulent undulations of the atmosphere high above us. When astronomers talk of good 'seeing' conditions, what they mean is that these undulations are less pronounced and the view is steadier. But even on a 'normal' night there may be very brief moments of steadiness that provide a fleeting, sharp, view of the lunar surface. What if there were some way we could capture these transient moments and combine them all into one really sharp image?

This is precisely the principle behind high frame rate lunar imaging. By using a webcam or a specialist high frame rate camera and a computer, astrophotographers can capture a short video of hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of individual frames. Then, using software such as RegiStax (www.astronomie.be/RegiStax) or AutoStakkert (www.autostakkert.com), the frames from these videos can be sorted and only the best selected. These are then stacked together to form a final image that is carefully sharpened to produce a shot that's beautifully detailed.

Focal Length and Composition

Learning how to place your target properly within the image frame will improve your astrophotos.

When it comes to composition, the choice of what focal length to image the Moon at naturally makes a tremendous impact on the final picture.

A short focal length DSLR lens will produce a wide view, with the Moon appearing tiny - perfect for conveying a sense of the great expanse of surrounding sky or incorporating a large-scale atmospheric phenomenon.

Using a longer focal length lens, or small refractor, will change the feel of the image entirely: here faraway trees, hills or buildings can be brought right up close with the disc of the Moon looming over them. And then there's the high-magnification world of high frame rate imaging, where the field of view is generally very small. Even here it's worth considering where in the shot to place the surface feature you're imaging, and whether a carefully planned mosaic could draw the viewer's eye more effectively.

Step-by-Step: Capture the Full Moon as it Rises

Image the full Moon rise with a DSLR or bridge camera, a lens or small refractor, and a static tripod.

1. Choose your location
An interesting foreground makes for an attractive moonrise shot. A sea horizon offers a dramatic setting if you're planning to use a longer lens, especially with the atmosphere distorting and reddening the Moon's disc. Alternatively a high vantage point can give a great sense of depth and distance.

2. Timing and direction
The time the Moon rises and the direction it does so are also vital considerations. Planetarium software such as Stellarium (www.stellarium.org) and smartphone apps such as The Photographer's Ephemeris can be extremely useful for planning precisely where you need to be looking and when.

3. Set up your equipment
Set up 10-15 minutes before moonrise, just in case you have kit issues that need addressing. If you're at a new site, this will also give you a chance to choose the best view or foreground for the photo. You'll typically only have a short window to get the shot once the Moon is above the horizon, so preparation is crucial.

4. Compose the shot
Think about the composition of your shot. You may have decided on your foreground, but how do you want to include it? With a plain horizon you could offset the Moon, perhaps to include a feature of the landscape. If you have a sea horizon, the moonlight on the water might help create an attractive focal point.

5. Capture the shot
Once the Moon's up, experiment with the exposure and ISO settings to ensure you get detail in your foreground without overexposing the Moon. It's all about waiting for that ideal moment when the Moon's light is balanced with the fading twilight, the clarity of the sky and how high the lunar disc is above the foreground.

6. Edit and enhance
When you've captured your shots, it's worth loading them into photo editing software for final enhancements. Of particular use for moonrise images are the tools that allow you to lighten the 'shadows' or darker regions within an image - this can really help to bring out foreground detail that is slightly underexposed.

Step-by-Step: Imaging Earthshine

Discover how to image the portion of the Moon that's illuminated by the light scattered off Earth.

1. Consult a calendar
Find out when the Moon will be a thin crescent - there's a phase chart in every BBC Sky at Night Magazine, and you can also use smartphone apps or planetarium software such as Stellarium (www.stellarium.org). The four days either side of new Moon are ideal.

2. Get your kit set up
Depending on when you're imaging, the Moon will be relatively low in either the west or east, so ensure you have a clear view. Set up your mount, scope and camera as normal — you'll need a driven mount. We'll be using a DSLR and small refractor or long lens for this tutorial.

3. Bring the Moon into view
Once set up, move or slew your telescope to bring the Moon into the field of view. If your mount can track at the lunar rate, as opposed to the sidereal one, it's a good idea to select that now, especially if you intend to use a longer focal length lens or scope.

4. Focus the image
Getting a sharp image is the key to capturing a great earthshine shot, so confirm that the view is in focus. Here the live preview function on modern DSLRs is particularly helpful. Observing the ragged inner edge of the lunar crescent is a good way to judge the focus.

5. Finalize composition
Next look at the composition of your shot. If your field of view is fairly wide think about including some trees, a distant hedgerow or some buildings. If you're shooting close in, consider how the heavily overexposed crescent and the glow around it will look in the frame.

6. Capture
Be sure to shoot in RAW to give you greater flexibility when it comes to editing. Unlike other forms of lunar photography, earthshine generally requires only single shots. Using a remote shutter release cable will keep the image free from blurring caused by shake introduced when you push the shutter button.

7. Settings
The camera settings required will vary between equipment setups. Exposures of a few seconds at ISO 400-1600 should work, with the lunar crescent being overexposed by necessity. Longer, low ISO exposures, for example, will produce smoother images but may cause foreground blurring as the mount tracks.

8. Tweaks, crops and final edits
Editing programs like Photoshop (paid) and GIMP (www.gimp.org) allow you to tweak the 'Levels' to improve the colour balance, brightness and contrast. You may also like to employ the 'Unsharp Mask' tool to sharpen up fine detail on the lunar disc.

Top Lunar Surface Targets

If you want to try out high-magnification lunar imaging, here are eight top targets to get you going.

Catharina, Cyrillus and Theophilus
These three craters are some of the most photographed on the Moon. For a particularly dramatic shot, image them two days before first quarter.

Crater Aristoteles sits on the edge of the Mare Frigoris. Its intricate ejecta blanket and terraced walls make it a wonderful crater to image when it is being lit from a low angle.

You'll find Gassendi on the northern shore of the Mare Humorum. When it comes to imaging it, good seeing conditions are needed to clearly reveal the interesting rille system within.

Plato and the Vallis Alpes
The region on the northeastern edge of the Mare Imbrium is rich in attractive targets and the crater Plato and the nearby Vallis Alpes are two that no lunar imager should overlook.

Rupes Recta
Also known as the Straight Wall, this huge fault is a fascinating feature to observe and image. You'll need to catch it when it's illuminated obliquely however, otherwise it's practically invisible.

Schröter's Valley
Vallis Schröteri, or Schröter's Valley, sits next to the prominent crater Aristarchus. Capturing the fine detail of this winding volcanic feature is a good test of a beginner's imaging skills.

Tycho's Ray System
The bright material — known as a ray ejecta — blasted across the Moon's surface by the impact that formed the crater Tycho is one of the few lunar features which is best seen at full Moon.

One of the most spectacular craters on the Moon, Copernicus has it all. Its grand terraced walls, prominent central peaks and surrounding ejecta blanket make it a great imaging target.

Copyright © Immediate Media. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical without permission from the publisher.

Date Taken: 08/05/2016
Author: Will Gater, BBC Sky at Night Magazine
Category: Astronomy

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